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The Internet of Things: Shaping Our Futures

Background

With funding from ARM, the CBR and the Cambridge Public Policy Strategic Research Initiative organised a workshop in September 2014 with industry experts and academics to discuss the Internet of Things. The workshop led to a report which was published in May 2015.

The Internet of Things ('IoT') is the name given to emerging technologies based on advanced forms of connectivity. These promise to open the way to more complex forms of machine to machine communication and to enable data to be transmitted over wide areas. The report looks at the prospects for the IoT, potential technological, economic and legal barriers to its widespread adoption, and its wider significance for society.  It is based on background research, interviews with industry experts and a users' workshop organised in early September 2014. The IoT is analysed as a complex system which links technologies, standards, markets, laws and ethics.

Results & dissemination

The report, published in May 2015 and based on a workshop supported by ARM, was produced by the CBR in conjunction with the Cambridge Public Policy Strategic Research Initiative. It explores the consequences of the new technology known as the Internet of Things. The report finds that via the IoT, machine to Machine (M2M) communication is likely to have a major impact on infrastructure and on the way towns and cities are developed in the future. Although still far from being a general purpose technology such as the Internet itself, the IoT has the potential to evolve in this direction, allowing new business models to emerge. The IoT creates new opportunities for data to be collated and used, and may thereby create new business uses, but this aspect of the technology is controversial because of its implications for privacy and data protection. The report argues that if the IoT is to become a reality, firms need to build trust around issues of privacy and security associated with emerging technologies. Thus civil dialogue and debate around the implications of the IoT are not just unavoidable, but desirable if the technology is to be accepted and widely used. Government has a role in stimulating this debate and in encouraging firms and industry bodies to arrive at solutions to privacy and security issues. The legal system must ensure that privacy rights are respected at the same time as allowing experimentation over terms and conditions for data.

Read more about the report

The first part of the report looks at the current state of the technologies which define the IoT and analyse potential barriers to their wider use and dissemination. Technologies do not emerge in a vacuum. They require standards and protocols which depend, in turn, on the willingness of firms to share certain knowledge while competing with each other over market share.  Thus standard setting involves a delicate balance of cooperation and competition. The report weigh ups arguments for and against the view that a common or open standard will be needed in order for the IoT to develop. It also explores the economics underlying take up of the IoT and the role of government in encouraging its transition to general purpose technology with the potential to transform products and markets.

The second part of the report looks at data protection and privacy issues. The IoT is emerging at a moment when there is growing concern over privacy and data security issues arising from use of internet-based technologies. It is possible to overstate the dangers posed by the IoT to privacy since many of its applications will involve closed systems. However, part of the economic value of the IoT to business firms is likely to lie in the opportunities it provides for the commercialisation of personal data. If risks to personal privacy from this process are not addressed, the take up of the technology may be delayed by a combination of legal liabilities and consumer distrust. The solution to this problem is likely to lie, the report suggests, in a combination of regulatory experimentation and the development of technologies which provide consumers and citizens greater control over personal data.

The third part of the report looks at the relationship between the IoT, human agency, and trust. The report identifies threats to human autonomy and freedom in a transformational technology such as the IoT which, while providing new opportunities for wealth creation and for the enhancement of personal and societal well being, may also disrupt core institutions, including those underpinning citizen voice and participation in democratic decision making.  The report argues that these risks need to be clearly accepted and addressed as the IoT develops. The future of the IoT is not preordained, and choices made in the early stages of its emergence will decisively influence its future development.

Centre for Business Research (2015) The Internet of Things: Shaping Our Futures. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.

Project leader

Simon Deakin

Co-investigators

David Howarth
Boni Sones
Carolyn Twigg

Project status

Ongoing

Funding

ARM Industries